When ACT published the City of Providence Art in City Life Plan in April 2018, our team was excited and challenged by the call from Via Partners to refrain from lumping consideration of memorials and monuments together with public art works. The Plan, nearly 35 years in the making, recommended that we should create a separate body in addition to the recommended Art in City Life Commission that would determine the “social and merit” of newly proposed and existing memorials and monuments – the public expressions of our city’s legacies. So began our work developing the Special Committee for Commemorative Works.

As we learned from our work inaugurating the Art in City Life Commission, the creation of a new civic body requires that a new ordinance be approved by the Providence City Council. To present a policy proposal to the Council and Mayor that built from promising practices adopted by other municipalities, we had some significant research ahead of us. Fortunately, under the direction of ACT Cultural Affairs Manager and resident policy wonk Gina Rodríguez-Drix, we collaborated with a fantastic young scholar who collated case studies from across the country while examining our hyper-local context and limitations.

Emma Boast’s fall 2018 practicum research yielded a suite of policy recommendations and a number of thorny questions that will inform our work in years to come:

  • Who decides what should be commemorated and memorialized in public space?
  • How do we move beyond bronze statues and granite memorials to commemorative forms that are better suited to difficult histories and contested forms of public memory?
  • What would it mean for a monument or memorial to invite public participation or to become a site of ritual?

ACT began drafting an ordinance based on Emma’s research in the summer of 2019. Once a lead sponsor was identified (Councilwoman Rachel Miller from Ward 13) the ordinance passed its first legislative hurdle in November of that year. Before it could pass out of the Council ordinance committee for final review, the pandemic hit.

That fact that City Council, and an amazing group of our colleagues, all of them passionate, brilliant bureaucrats, brought ORD-2020-21 over the finish line in June of 2020, during one of the most challenging years our City has faced in recent memory, shows the enormity of our communal commitment to taking Providence’s commemorative landscape seriously. As our Downcity neighborhood erupted with exhortations to protect Black lives, our City officials affirmed that we would have a mechanism to determine who and what will be honored in our shared public spaces.

Now, nearly a year later, we invite you, our community, to reflect on the thorny questions posed above, and others, with us. As you consider your own perspectives on “commemoration and legacy,” we hope you will be inspired to bring your experiences, expertise, concerns, questions and big ideas to a public forum in a way that suits you – we only ask that you take it all seriously.

Stephanie Fortuanto
Director
City of Providence Department of Art, Culture + Tourism

 

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 For more on Emma’s process, see her ACT blog post here.

 For the full text of the ordinance, see the City of Providence’s Code of Ordinances website here.

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